There's nothing quite like a victory over an arch nemesis to sweeten a flawless record — a fact not lost on the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons or resurgent New Orleans Saints as they renew one of the league's more spirited and longstanding rivalries.
"There is so much history between the two teams. We have played each other for such a long time and I think that adds to it," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "There are so many people from Georgia and Louisiana that cross paths and live in those areas, so the fan aspect lends a lot to it as well. It's fun to be a part of that."
Now that Atlanta (8-0) has made it half way through its schedule without a loss for the first time in franchise history, the prospect of perfection has become a subplot to the Falcons' season. To accomplish that, Atlanta will have to beat New Orleans (3-5) twice, with the first meeting coming this Sunday in the Superdome.
Outspoken Falcons receiver Roddy White pronounced this week that he believes Atlanta has "the pedigree" to run the table, which, back at Saints headquarters, drew a grin from Saints defensive end Will Smith.
"They've got to go 9-0 before they go 16-0, so I think he's kind of getting a little ahead of himself," Smith said. "I think they just need to take it one game at a time."
While this season, played in the unavoidable and distracting context of the bounty scandal, has been a struggle for the Saints, they have won three of their last four. New Orleans also has pretty much owned the Falcons since Drew Brees' arrival in the Big Easy in 2006.
With Brees under center, New Orleans is 10-2 against Atlanta. Odds makers still are listing the Falcons as favorites, but by less than a field goal.
"Anytime you have division games there (is) always something extra to it," Ryan said. "For me, it's a team I have a lot of respect for. I think they have been tough to play against."
The game is about as high-stakes as a midseason contest can be for New Orleans, which has not yet given up on its long-shot hopes of clawing its way back into the wild card race.
"It's a big game," Brees said. "The fans probably view it as hatred more. The players, it feels like every time we play the Falcons it's such a big game, whether it be our standings or the meaning of the game (or) just the fact that we're divisional opponents (and) we always know it's going to be a 16-round bout. But, I think it's kind of obvious that there's an extreme competitiveness on both sides knowing what type of game this will be."
The last time these teams met last December, New Orleans turned it into a 45-16 beat-down in which Brees eclipsed Dan Marino's 1984 single-season record of 5,084 yards passing. Brees went on to set the mark at 5,476, and returns this season with most of last year's record-setting offense still intact.
Marques Colston is on track to surpass 1,000 yards receiving and has six TDs in his past five games. Tight end Jimmy Graham has five touchdown catches. Darren Sproles has been hampered by a broken left hand, but Saints running backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory combined last weekend for nearly 140 yards on the ground, while Thomas and Ingram each averaged better than 10 yards a catch out of the backfield.
In addition, New Orleans will be facing a defense giving up 127.5 yards per game on the ground, worse than every team in the NFC except the Saints, who are yielding a conference-worst 176.5 yards rushing a game.
Overall, the Saints are allowing a league-worst average of 471.3 yards per game, over 50 yards more than the next-worst team. New Orleans even yielded more than 400 yards to Philadelphia last week, but allowed only 13 points because of strong stands deep in its own territory. The Saints' defense produced seven sacks, an interception for a score and a fumble recovery against the Eagles, but may very well struggle to repeat those feats against Atlanta.
Ryan has proven he is about as poised as a quarterback can be, distributing the ball quickly and decisively to a range of skill players. He has two big-play receivers in White (709 yards, four TDS) and second-year pro Julio Jones (628 yards, five TDs). Then there's seemingly ageless veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, who keeps threatening to retire after this season, even though he's having one of the better campaigns of his career, now with a team-leading 50 catches for 495 yards and four scores.
Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt, overseeing the coaching staff while Sean Payton serves his season-long bounty suspension, said Gonzalez remains one of the premier tight ends in the NFL and that his presence complicates matters for defenses already struggling to contain White an Jones.
Vitt also noted that Atlanta, this season in particular, has been able to combine talent with intelligent, fundamentally sound football. Atlanta is plus-10 in the turnover column, fourth best in the NFL, and is the least penalized team in the league.
"There's a recipe to be 8-0 and they've got that recipe going right now," said Vitt, who was part of the Saints' staff when New Orleans opened 2009 13-0 en route to Super Bowl title. "They're extremely confident. They've won some tight football games. They're executing extremely well. They're not shooting themselves in the foot with needless penalties. They're winning the turnover takeaway battle, so there's a reason they're on a roll."
The Falcons also have a number of level-headed veteran leaders such as Gonzalez, who is determined not to allow his team to enter the Superdome overconfident, regardless of how much the Saints and their beleaguered defense may have struggled to date.
"Obviously they're our archrivals," Gonzalez said. "They have every reason to come out and play hard, just like we do. It's going to be tough for us to go in there and get that victory, but I think we're up to the challenge."
George Henry of The Associated Press contributed to this report from Flowery Branch, Ga.
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